Season of wither: Don’t put that garden to bed

Now’s the time to plan for pollinators.

Want butterflies in your garden? Read on. – Photos by Susan Safford

Imagine you are a newbie gardener. When you read gardening advice about insects, their damage and management, you feel somewhat relieved, not to mention smug, as you have seen no insects on your plants.

Wait a minute – no insects?

While an insectless garden might appear to be ideally immaculate for one brief instant, it is a deadly desert. One need only mention “crisis in pollinators” for many to recognize what is at stake.

According to research recently published in Plos One (, a 27-year study showed a seasonal decline of 76 percent, and a midsummer decline of 82 percent, of insect biomass in nature reserves in Germany. Follow the link to read more about this study and the novel and horrifying situation it presages.

How can a garden bring joy to its humans, and partner with the natural world as well?

If we want fruits and vegetables, we must support pollinators. If we love birds, we must give their young what they need to thrive and grow: insect life. If we want butterflies, we must learn to love caterpillars. If we want owls, we must tolerate mice, voles, chipmunks, and rabbits. Earwigs, beetles, slugs, roly-polies, earthworms, and uncountable invisible fauna are essential to the compost and leaf molds that make our soil thrive.

The most forward-thinking garden thinkers of the 21st century are evolving other, different ways of gardening: Mimic the ways nature functions, but in the built environment; copy what would be happening with native plants and perennials in their natural setting.

The thinking divides, and gardeners have a choice. One choice might be called the 20th century perspective, with its emphasis on hygienic control, cleanliness, and cutdowns, when time comes to “put the garden to bed.” Clearing up the garden now is disastrous, yet it is deep within our gardening culture.

Gardeners who wish to work in a spirit of balance with nature might opt for the “air of genteel decay,” even if it looks messy, with skeletal plant remains and seedheads left standing. It would be simplistic to call it that, but the idea is to support animal and soil life.

This extends to “cleaning up” dead trees, or pre-emptive removal of what the insurance industry terms “dangerous trees.” If you can’t leave it in place, plant a portion of the trunk elsewhere. Upright dead trees are important habitats and food sources for wildlife such as bats, woodpeckers, and nesting solitary bees.

I relied on information from Eric Grissell’s “Insects and Gardens” and Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy’s “The Living Landscape” (both Timber Press), as well as C. Colston Burrell’s “Perennial Combinations” (Rodale Press), as references. Ask for these and numerous other books on pollinator gardening at the library.

The moths, beetles, bees, and wasps, ants, and more, work for our garden ecosystems. Grissell states forthrightly that butterfly gardening does not interest him, as it goes against his principles to encourage only one group of insects in the garden, but then goes on to describe some of the prerequisites.

Learning the larval host plants of specific butterflies is helpful. One might permit more dock to grow, upon learning that the lovely copper butterflies feed on it. Nectar-producing flowers in shades of purple, yellow, orange, and red are best; even better if tubular. Large patches of a single color are easier to spot than single flowers.

As for what to plant to attract a healthy cross-section of pollinators, there is a wide array. Not all are gardenesque specimens: It is possible to see as many painted lady butterflies on a patch of mustard in a weedy gutter as upon a planted buddleia (which may soon be landing on the state Prohibited Plant List due to its invasiveness). Plants in sunny locations seem to attract much more pollinator action than those in shade, but gardens ideally contain a mixture of sun and shade.

The painted lady butterfly, Vanessa cardui, seen on the buddleia flower photograph is especially plentiful this year, according to Matt Pelikan. When I observe them, sometimes as many as five or six at once, they are usually visiting flowers in open, sunny locations.

The bees and wasps that perform so much of the work of pollination are not the glamour beauty queens that butterflies are. Their focus is plants that produce abundant pollen, which they use to rear their larvae. Wasps such as the cicada killer are fearsome garden predators too. Flower flies lay their eggs where they chance upon aphids.

Hummingbirds, the fascinating and popular garden visitors, are efficient pollinators. It is well known that they like red and tubular flowers, but they are observed to visit all sorts of flowers, actually. Their insect mimics, the clearwing moths, include the adult of the squash vine borer, but they also perform pollination.

Flowering heaths and heathers are covered with insects. Winter- and spring-blooming ones (erica) are invaluable for survival of early-emerging insects. Late-to-bloom native witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) provide nectar and pollen through the start of cold weather, and their fancy hybrid hamamelis cousins pick up the baton starting in early January.

Flowering alliums of all sorts are heavy nectar producers, from chives to bolted onions and leeks in vegetable gardens, to the dramatic, strictly ornamental bulbs planted in ornamental borders.


How can a garden bring joy to its humans, and partner with the natural world as well? To serious garden thinkers’ postwild way of thinking, every shred of support we can give nature must be given a chance, since in ever-expanding built environments it is so diminished.

In autumn, life goes to earth and begins to sink down into the soil. We think of our gardens as ours, but they and we really belong to the earth.


Pollinator plants

Verbena bonariensis

phlox, especially red forms such as ‘Starfire’

preganos/ornamental oregano ‘Rosenkuppel’

asclepias: butterfly weed, common milkweed, swamp milkweed


joe-pye weed, boneset

cardinal flower, giant blue lobelia

prairie baby’s-breath (Euphorbia corollata)

thymes, culinary and ornamental


Hylotelephium (sedums) such as ‘Matrona’ and ‘Autumn Joy’


echinops (globe thistle)

compositae in general: zinnias; goldenrod and asters; echinacea

dill and fennel